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American Idol, the Construction of the Filipino Performer Identity and the

Consumption of Television Entertainment Culture:


An Attempt to Reconstruct a Decolonized Cultural Studies Discourse

Eugene Salazar

I amar prestar aen... han mathon ne nen, han mathon


ne chae a han nostan ned gwilith. (The world has changed...
I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air.)

PRELIMINARY CONSIDERATIONS

In this essay, the present writer will attempt to articulate a response to the claims

contained in this essay’s very title. This will be dealt with through the eyes of postcolonial

discourse of cultural studies using the main thesis here that is the possibility of meaning

negotiation of a particular interpellated identity (performer). The other accompanying variable at

work is the role and mechanism promulgated by a television program from a high capitalistic

economy (American Idol). The present writer will also attempt to explain theoretical

assumptions, ferret out interpretations from the contextual field of this form of discourse and

utilize the active role of reader reception in negotiating the particulate identity formed in the

matrix of this encoder-decoder role. With this specific problem in mind, the possibility of

meaning formation and its inevitable identity influence will be shaped in the hope that the larger

debate on whether cultural studies as a discourse of highly advanced capitalistic societies can be

of help to this paper’s specific problematic which is the precession of meaning negotiation of

identity among its Third World audience, in this case Filipino audienceship and interpretation of

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American Idol as a social field of identity formation and meaning construction. As noted, this

paper will analyze the problematic at two textual levels- the first being the negotiation of

meaning by American Idol viewers with how it affects their adoption of a role performer-

consumer of the show, and on the second level, how this very process can be interpreted in the

light of cogently putting forward an analytic that agrees with the utility of a decolonized

approach to Philippine cultural studies (if not at least a sampler of such approach).

SITUATED TRAJECTORY OF THE PRESENT CONDITION

The Filipino finds himself in the midst of a fray, one that is fraught by political and

ideological assumptions, inspired both by academic immersion in the dialogues of cultural

studies and its inflection in the field of popular culture and the implied living of such

predominantly cultural practices. Focused by the scrutinizing of academic and professional

interest groups (such as cultural studies scholars, university professors, graduate students, think

tank groups and non-governmental agencies), the realm of Philippine cultural studies is a

relatively new area of academic discipline laden with its own problematic of prioritizing

appropriate methodologies and utilizing the research content provided by cross-disciplinary areas

of sociology, literary theory, anthropology, psychology and linguistics.

The trends brought about by the changes in technology, massive movements of diasporic

people groups (Filipinos being one of them), and the emergent trends and effects of the

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globalizing world economy, along with their capitalist undertones have brought about substantial

changes with how readers of this particular phenomena would approach it.

Oscar Campomanes, in his essay The Vernacular/Local, The National, and the Global in

Filipino Studies, develops the idea that this dramatic onslaught of globalization has affected how

we could imagine the nature of Filipino studies ( 2003, 7-9). The Filipino joins the rest of the

world in this reduced global village in which exchange of culture and information colored by

local and exotic forms has shown no sign of slowing down.

With this in mind, the hegemonic nature of media and the information superhighway is

an undisputed frontier for understanding this cultural upheaval. The Philippines, though a Third

World country, is nonetheless linked in this global network that benefits from the exchange of

cultural knowledge through the use of media and technology. With all the fears and anxieties

associated with it, the study of globalization has its promises for good (Legrain, 2003: 12). This

phenomenon not only sets the stage for the present investigation for academics but also invites

incursions on social practice and theorizing for a more informed direction of study and a choice

of proper methodology to proper address its terrains.

Aside from the looming factor played by media and technology, a researcher into this

area would also have to consider the historical, the cultural and the political dimensions of the

inquiry. At the end of the twentieth century, many Third World nations have thrown off the yoke

of colonial rule, inscribing their sense of identity at the working of their own hands. Their

constituent systems, institutions and individuals confronted the need for self-determination at the

end of a colonizing power. Their history and culture were strongly influenced by the colonial

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powers that ruled them. It is inevitable to state that the British, the French, the Americans, the

Spanish and other European powers established a considerable degree of legacy in virtually all

aspects of culture. This conversation between the colonizing power’s legacy and the local

knowledge led into an ongoing contestation in the formation of identity in its individual,

communitarian, regional, and national level thus stressing the role of how culture is the

ideological battleground of the modern world-system (Wallertsein, 2000: 1824; San Juan Jr.,

2002: 5-7).

In cultural studies, the influence of the postcolonial paradigm is a developing area of

scholarly interests since it provided a medium for voices of Third World scholars from Asia,

Africa and Latin America to articulate modes of speaking, cultural artifacts dismissed by

Occidental discourse, ways of textual reading and Euro-American categories. As founding

parents of postcolonial theorizing, the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhaba

have provided the impetus for a barrage of multivariate Third World voices in making the

subaltern speak and serve as foundational texts in encouraging further discussion of Third World

concerns in the area of cultural understanding. In the Philippines, and even among diasporic

writers, the inflection of this nuance of inquiry is taking shape in the works of contemporary

scholars like E. San Juan Jr., Isagani Cruz, Soledad Reyes, Oscar Campomanes and other

emergent scholars in the budding area of Philippine cultural studies. The works of these scholars

help validate the need to reflect critically on the need to develop inquiry on cultural studies as it

appropriates local and native problems.

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CULTURAL STUDIES AS A PROBLEMATIC FOR PHILIPPINE SETTING

The notion of cultural studies as a discourse established through the works of its founding

fathers (Raymond Williams, Richard Johnson and Richard Hoggart) can now be appropriated as

a field of inquiry in a Third World setting. The contributions made by postcolonial theorists

mentioned earlier (Said, Spivak and Bhaba) helped enriched the field for further investigations as

it provided a perspective that informed the theoretical work necessitated by the historical and

political workings of Third World settings. In as much as nations in the Third World are

aspirants for capitalist structures and concede strongly to the tenets of the post-industrial West, it

follows that some if not all cultural practices manifested traces of these postindustrial,

technologically driven and capitalist economies.

Certain cultural practices of leisure, work ethic, social relations, educational,

technological as well as political inclinations will be fused with Western ways of living

(commutarian transports, dining out for meals, entertainment consumptions like television and

movies etc.) The Philippines, with the strong emphasis in its feudal relationships and sense of

commitment to community circles (family, peers, colleagues etc.) be affected by these particulars

as a cultural studies approach to the matter will be colored by such perspective.

E. San Juan makes a stronger point when he quotes Raymond Williams in the latter’s

espousal of a cultural studies program that is realized as an all encompassing way of life

approach, one which imbricates a whole range of activities, relations and institutions of everyday

life with heuristic and emancipatory purposes (San Juan, 1999: 35). It is not a blind faith in a

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paradigm that found itself as criticizing Leavisian and Arnoldian frameworks alone. In fact it is

Williams’ work that helped modern literary critics and cultural studies scholars to understand the

larger role of culture in the textual production and consumption of lived practices. In the

Philippines, the recovery project of establishing local study of culture as expressed in the same

capitalist undercurrents of political economy and political networks of advertising, market

consumption and entertainment has yet to be fully explored. Thus, cultural studies scholars here

live in the best of times and worst of times. It is a period of promising scholarly studies as the

Philippines with its “rich” colonial past and its present capitalist consumptive culture imprecated

by class differences, will be a thoroughly fertile social field for cultural inquiry. On the other

hand a need to select appropriate methodologies will have to be ascertained by scholars, whether

they will use ethnography, focus groups, semiotic approaches, historical studies or whatever is

necessitated by the study. John Fiske, in his explorations of the terrain of British cultural studies

and the categories that pervade it such as class, admonished scholars that the possibility of lifting

lesson learned from his inquiry but they will have to be reconfigured with the needs of specific

and conjunctive factors demanded by such localizations. Thus he sees it differently if the logical

implications of his studies in the British setting take a different outworking in U.S. (1999: 144).

A similar question could be posed for the local scenario. It is of course a question of

whether the political and economic conditions that made contributions in the British paradigm

also contribute to the Philippine setting. Fiske has of course admitted of the class conscious

society pre and post war Britain is and this class consciousness shaped the cultural studies

framework Raymond Williams did for cultural studies as a whole (or at least through his

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assessment of it). Given its feudal and aspiring capitalist economy, the Philippines is a multiple

layer of societies – urban, rural, metropole, cosmopolitan. Despite these layers, aggregate

sources of identification – politics, postcolonial discourse, technocratic mobility and globalizing

tendencies contest each other in the creation of a concrete discourse of cultural studies. It is the

cosmopolitan label and its globalizing marker that at a pervasive degree habit majority of

Philippine society. The feudal ways of relating one among others still govern conservative values

and modes of relationships but the openness of Philippine society to the world and its nexus of

variant cultures make the Filipino sturdy in the face of conflicting as well as affirming

worldviews. This has been reinforced by the premium placed on education as a redemptive tool

for individual and social transformation. Thus, the openness to strange and novel ways of

thinking, living and relating. The question that has to be appended aside from the issue of class

mobility is the issue of ways of relating. This of course isn’t a Filipino exclusive trait of relations

nor a simple admission of being a previous colonial extension of the West (as well as by the

East, e.g. Japan). Where does cultural studies come in this confusing nexus of superpowers?

How should cultural studies questions be stated so that seekers of truth may arrive at a

meaningful and liberating answer specially one that is attuned to Filipino sensibilities and ways

of feeling and thinking? While this calls for a grand cultural project that requires clear thinking

and voluminous interchange of ideas, this paper will attempt to answer these questions with the

idea of a specific social field of inquiry in mind: entertainment.

The field of inquiry is a rich and diverse space. Sanity and clarity require that a limit should be

imposed on this broad area, the present writer will focus on television reception and identity

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appropriation of an entertainment program (a reality game show/competition American Idol).

With this in mind, several questions will have to be posed: What significance (if it has any) does

American Idol have for Filipino viewers? What modes of significance or contestation appear at

the vortex of this discourse? Is American Idol simply a globalizing threat of American cultural

imperialism? How does the show contribute to the Filipinos penchant for performance? Will the

pursuit of attainment of great American dream (as subconsciously signified in the American Idol

text) work for Filipinos? Does it perpetuate a false sense of identity and create a subject position

that is asymmetrical to Filipino ways of living? What theoretical paradigms fit well to advance

the idea of television reception and performance subject position fusion?

These questions are as confounding as they are connected to other assumptions that need

to be uncovered, but for now for the sake of simplicity and in the spirit of charity, the focus now

is on the answering of these questions. For a better understanding of the paradigms coated in

these inquiries, we now turn to the next section of this paper for historical survey and data

gathering of relevant constructs raised in this portion.

TECHNOLOGY, TELEVISION AND PHILIPPINE VEWERSHIP

As noted in a previous section of this paper, the ubiquitous nature of technology cannot

be ignored. The changes at the beginning of the nineteenth century did not only affect the major

world economies but their colonies as well (Santos, 2001; Duara, 2001; Campomanes, 2003).

The changes that took place came on the form of technological advancement that affected ways

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of living, challenging traditional values, modernizing approaches to how things are done in life

and transforming as well our sense of reflexivity and how we relate to ourselves, others and the

environment we live in. The term “global village” immediately became a cliché as Filipinos ( a

significant number if not the majority) among many other nations welcomed the tides of

transformations from the expansive immigrations (due to socio-economic reasons), technology

transfers (adoptions of technological devices- iPods, DVDs, plasma TV, satellite cable, Internet,

etc.) and massive restructurings with content and methodological structures of knowledge

(Foucault, 1983). Urbanized Philippine society joined their counterparts in Jamaica, Tanzania,

Bangladesh and Luxembourg in hooking up with the interconnected world village.

In 2000 the company AC Nielsen conducted a survey of Filipino households. The results

yielded that 80% of all Filipino homes owned a television set, with Metro Manila recording the

country's highest TV ownership at 93 per cent. All other areas dry up at 80 %.An increase in

cable subscription also was observed with Dagupan, Pangasinan topping the survey at 57%.

Manila comes next with 20% cable subscription, Cebu at 20% and Davao at 12%. The AC

Nielsen survey also showed a pattern in technology consumer behavior as Metro Manila, having

the greatest income generating families has the highest ownership of color TV sets, video games,

personal computers and landlines. With this trend in mind, any researcher can infer that the

Philippines being exposed to a phenomenal consumer attitude with regards to technology, will

definitely be affected by a reconfiguration of knowledge structures, lifestyles, values and

ultimately cultural practices.

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It is no wonder that technology and all the changes it brought had a profound contribution

in the reconfiguration of cultural values and practices. As a tool that may have been born out of

the knowledge structures of the West, it is nonetheless a neutral instrument that serves various

purposes: entertainment, education, communication, marketing, and research. With varying

purposes therefore, it becomes a site for contestation of values, lifestyles and meanings. Thus

Behn Cervantes, an activist and playwright-director found it deplorable that a game show by its

showcasing of a woman crying for help to assuage her financial troubles, in the said writer’s

opinion, promoting a culture of mendicancy among Filipino viewers (Cervantes, 2006).

The Philippines prides itself as a conservatively traditional Christian nation in Asia and

yet this does not stop the television from broadcasting shows that present if not preach a different

lifestyle (with accompanying social and cultural practices). Though a regulatory body for

broadcast television exists (MTRCB), the average Filipino viewer is still exposed and

democratically provided access to other cultures and lifestyles reinforcing if not palely imitating

a cosmopolitan freedom for the television viewer. Sensitive to the values of his culture, the

Filipino viewer nonetheless entertains and watches shows, movies and broadcast that may either

be considered offensive or contradictory to his values system. The broadcast production has of

course liberalized the window of Filipino viewership, although censorship exists at a pragmatic

level, considering viewer sensitivity and attunement to Filipino values. This is the paradox

brought about by the technological intrusion of television to the life of Filipinos, although the

Filipino has never really paid much attention to the existence of contradictions in his identity.

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Another important dimension of viewing habit among Filipinos focuses on the dimension

of reception. The concept of “the society of the spectacle” is a concept used to describe the

media and consumer society, including the packaging, promotion and display of commodities

and production effects of all media. (Debord, 1967: 213). A similar marker characterizes

television consumption, thus creating a sub-sector of society meant to watch and see. The way

television is consumed is subject to a plethora of factors – for viewing pleasure (and the extent of

such pleasure exhibits itself), boundaries of home values, preferences for certain contents and

themes, and even the propensity for simple distraction. The idea of pleasure as pure and simple a

singular motive for television watching is too sweeping to admit. Neither is the unmediated need

for distraction, the so called killing off of time. Such in itself is a cultural practice worthy of

investigation, though that isn’t the subject of this paper. The mechanisms for human interaction

with televiewing pleasure maybe the subject of social psychology but its contextual mechanism

is not. Watching television as cultural practice is of course a feature of capitalist societies, with

the as Philippines aspiring to become one of them. It is therefore the subject of the next

subheadings of this paper to tackle on that important feature.

TELEVISION AND THE SUBJECT POSITIONS OF CONSUMER AND PERFORMER

Entertainment alone is not enough to account for the sheer complexity of television

viewership in any culture, much less the Filipino urban culture. Since its introduction in the

country in 1953 with the opening of DZ-AQ TV Channel 3 of Alto Broadcasting Station in

Manila, Philippine television and its audiences have gone a long way. By 1998, the country has

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137 television stations (60 are originating stations, 54 are relay stations and 24 are ultra-high

frequency stations). This is proof to a certain extent that the adoption of a television culture does

not show any rate of slowing down. Consequently this stresses the idea that television plays a

significant role in audience reception and consumption. With its spectacle entertainment ,

contemporary television exhibits more high tech glitter, faster and glitzier in its editing, with

computer simulations and exhibiting a fantastic array of viewing pleasure ( Kellner, 2005: 30-

31).

Since its inception, television programming was dominated by foreign shows and the

need to make it thoroughly Filipino (if ever that was achievable in a lifetime) wasn’t realize in its

early decades of broadcasting. (del Mundo, 2003: 5). However, the television as a medium for

entertainment, as a tool for pleasure consumption did serve its purpose and evolved through the

years as more stations (ABS-CBN, GMA, RPN, ABC, PTV, IBC) emerged to cater to newer

viewing needs. Commercial television became a new phenomenon as advertising and its

marketing strategies tried to target more consumers at prime time.

The realm and extent of exploring Philippine entertainment television would be a

herculean task for the present paper so the necessity to shift to the major focus of this thesis is in

order. How has entertainment TV affected Filipino interpellations of their subject identities as

consumers and specifically as aspiring performers? With this in mind it is worthwhile that a brief

digression would be needed to properly understand the notion of performer-consumer.

How have Filipinos appropriated pleasure from watching television? One can say that in

the fifties, the very notion of television as a tool for amusement cannot be sidestepped. Viewers

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then watched American shows like I Love Lucy, Candid Camera, Highway Patrol etc. (del

Mundo, 2003: 6).These programs were the staple of American culture, showing images and

meanings of contemporary American social life. As good as a consumer is, the Filipinos

appropriated these shows as their own, ingesting the categorizations in which these programs

operated, following their fluidity, their gendered stereotypes and counter-stereotypes, their

openness to proliferate meanings and their assumptions about social relations and determinants.

Entertainment followed this course of appreciation.

Where does the question of pleasure as a goal in watching television come in? It may

have not been evident but the fact that Filipinos in those years watched and patronized this new

technology, that in it self is an indication of a betrayal of viewing pleasure at cultures not entirely

their own. With the presence and influence of American values and traditions, Filipinos

transformed these forms of categories to suit their own. In the years that followed, more TV

programs emerged. This time it featured local actors and actresses. The programs and their

contents showcased Filipino family struggles, soap operas, game shows (Unahan sa Kampana

and Kualta Na), variety shows (Pista ng Caltex) singing competitions (Tawag ng Tanghalan)

news broadcast (Tomorrow’s News Aired Tonight) and even comedies. Slowly noon time shows

and prime time broadcast assimilated local lifestyle with a strong tint of American influence in

both language and programming structure.

Television as it evolved through the years catered to the Filipino propensity for

entertainment and with this craving for entertainment, television watchers acquired subject

positions of consumer and performer. The former is an opaque category indulgently visible and

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emergent at the very inception of television culture in the country, while the latter is a recent

development forged out of the repetitive practice partly fed by Third World sensibilities and

partly pushed by psychological motives and born in the conversations of capitalist impulse to be

known in a class of apparently generic units of individuals. To attribute it to an appropriation of

the Great American Dream is a simplistic though not an erroneous inference. Since their mode of

knowledge has been partly interpellated by the colonizer-colonized binarity, Filipinos see this as

a reflection of their being a subjugated nation, a collective identity acquired and actively

absorbed as inevitable consequences of their subject positions, ruling their discourses as a

conquered race and a docile culture. Thus, the notion of identity inserts itself in the discourse of

the performative subject position being discussed. The notion of identity as a related construct in

the elucidation of the performative role of the Filipinos cannot be oversimplified. It has its

philosophical roots and ramifications that cannot be fully explored in this essay although a lot of

excellent ones have been written in the area. What can be elaborated about it and its relation to

performative appropriation is that it is born out of the dynamics that contributed to a national

collective of world-class performers, one which has been claimed and substantiated by Filipino

excellence in the arts and humanities, specifically in music and singing.

While this notion of identity has philosophical underpinnings and yet also informed by

postcolonial leanings, the idea of Filipino identity via media is an almost amorphous discussion

of complex and boundless territorialities. Fernando Nakpil Zialcita has outlined in his book

Authentic Although Not Exotic : Essays on Filipino Identity domains of exploring the notions of

Filipino identity, the slur on the apparent mongrel-nature of Filipino identity, the contours of that

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identity as historically conditioned by its colonial past, the apparent absence of the uniqueness

and indigenous trait of a so called Filipino arts, and a list of other concerns excellently covered in

his book. In fact Zialcita gives the readers the positive and strong foundations for identifying

Filipino markers of identity. As regards our present project on the performative role and possible

implied reinforcement provided by media television on this Filipino propensity (that is the need

to aspire to a dream role, a singing career or celebrity performance status through the

spectatorship of public audience), we have to look to other sources for theoretical and practical

understanding.

A direct answer in tracing the genesis of this performative role is by looking back to the

content and themes of Philippine television and the cultural background of Filipinos. There was a

mention of Tawag ng Tanghalan as precursors to a singing contest. In the eighties there was Ang

Bagong Kampeon hosted by comedian Bert Marcelo and Asia’s Queen of Song Ms. Pilita

Corrales. Some of the famous offshoots of this context include popular singing artist Regine

Velasquez and Donna Cruz. In this decade alone, several reality TV programs showcasing

musical talent have sprouted. To name a few, there is Pinoy Pop Superstar (GMA 7- hosted by

Regine Velaquez, dubbed as Asia’s Songbird), Pinoy Dream Academy, Star in a Million (ABS-

CBN)- which spawned many young talents including Sarah Geronimo, Christian Bautista, Eric

Santos and Sheryn Reyes. There are even celebrity search talent shows for the young like ABS-

CBN’s Star Circle Quest and GMA 7’s Star Struck. Recently, a franchise was made by ABC 5 to

render a local version of American Idol which was logically named Philippine Idol with Mau

Marcelo as the first Philippine Idol.

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Whenever one turn into the cultural diversity of people groups in the country, one cannot

ignore the richness of their musical culture. From the Ifugaos of the north to the Maranao’s of the

south, music and its expression as an extension of a particular ethnic groups unique identity

speaks of various aspects of their lives- from marriage, birth, death, ritual, war, competition and

the like, sounds and rhythms codify the cultural practice of these people groups. The urbanized

centers of the country as well exude richness of musical sensitivity (if they maybe simply be seen

as cultural adaptations from other lands- reggae, hip-hop, various genres of rock and

contemporary music) and expression. Thus it is an indelible attribute of Philippine cultures to

have musical as well as performative elements.

A plausible link may now be established with how Filipino cultural sensitivity as a whole

is attuned to his notion of identity. With the television as a powerful Western (yet Orientalized)

tool for empowerment and the reinforcement of this ideal, the text can now be moved into the

discussion of the role of the medium itself (in this case the television program American Idol).

AMERICAN IDOL: COVERT AMERICAN IMPERIALISM OR EMANCIPATORY


SELF-DECLARATION?

American Idol is a yearly American televised singing competition geared towards

discovering young singing talents through a series of national auditions. Part of the Idol

Franchise, it originated from the UK reality program Pop Idol. Several countries around the

world bought franchise from Brazil to Denmark. Its share in audience viewership climbed the

charts since its seasonal inception in 2002. Since the last season (5) AI has topped the television

charts in the US and in several countries around the world. In the Philippines, its live feed gave

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ABC 5 (the local TV network who got its franchise of broadcasting the program) its needed

boost in the viewership rates along with giants ABS-CBN 2 and GMA 7.

The predictable accusation that can be hurled at American Idol is that its is nothing but a

covert tool of American cultural imperialism made to subjugate people’s practices and belief

systems into the American mold. This simplistic statement undermines the fact that television

reception is not a passive ingesting of images and sounds. In an essay called Encoding/Decoding,

cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall (1973) argues that the moments of production (encoding) and

consumption (decoding) are not as simple as they appear. The structures of television production,

the programming patterns and habits are if not symmetrical are different from the way audiences

read and consume them. They are determinate moments which can be read through three

possible positionalities ( dominant, negotiated and oppositional). In a postcolonial set up, it is

inevitable that Filipino viewers cannot escape their colonial past and its effects on them, but they

can choose to grasp the world’s knowledge structures (and in this case television programming

of American Idol) and see it in a different light. In other words, viewers can choose to adopt,

transform or subvert messages imbued in the television discourse of American Idol. While

Filipino viewers may follow the TV series with cultic devotion, it is quite a sweeping

generalization that every viewer of the program would want to don the fashion of Paula Abdul or

adopt the skepticism of Simon Cowell. While that may also be a possibility (and there are people

who confess they love Simon and Paula) that that can happen, people choosing a lifestyle or an

attitude cannot be entirely be thought of as getting it from what they saw on TV.

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With all its patronage for commercial and marketing structures, American Idol is nothing

but a text that has to be read like any other TV text. Like any other commercial television

program, it is nothing but a system of signification formed out of the productions studios of a

capitalist society. The act of reading this text will of course as Hall suggested be up to the

preferred meanings constructed by the viewers. The mechanism of how those preferred meanings

were arrived at will depend on the viewer’s value system and habits. Then again, we go back to

the nature of cultural studies as a decolonized approach in the Philippine setting. At the expense

of a million-dollar generating program, American Idol is of course a capitalist, consumer

centered and self-realization step text of American individualist philosophy, one that is being

slowly accommodated to by Filipino contemporary society.

AMERICAN IDOL AS A TEXTUAL NARRATIVE, ITS FILIPINO APPROPRIATIONS


AND OTHER THINGS

As a field of social inquiry, American Idol is a profusely rich text for cultural analysis,

one that is layered with several layers of cultural meaning. The narrative of American Idol as a

discourse transformed for television broadcast can be translated as a commodified narrative full

of thick significations, images and meanings. Consider the structure of the program presentation.

In lieu with reality game shows, featuring shoots and images as they happen before, during and

after the auditions, often zooming in on facial reactions of joy (for being accepted in the

audition), disappointment (for being rejected) and occasionally of humor (featuring funny antics

by aspirants who tragically do not possess the talent yet believe they have what it takes to be the

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next American Idol). With this representation of TV programming as something casual or life

like, the political undercurrent is to translate a value system that expounds the work ethic of the

American middle class, a story of triumph through adversity as stressed by the textual shots on

the extreme joy of being drafted and bound for Hollywood. The succeeding episodes focus on

further performances before the judges (Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson) as they

also receive comments from the judges as regards their performance. Usually the judges are

frank and encouraging except for Simon Cowell who is amusingly caustic. The drama of real life

proceeds as the number of contestants is reduced and as the thinning proceeds to the Final

Twelve. In the way the programming is followed, the attempt is to make audiences feel the

intensity of real life drama. It is an illusion and at the same time a projection of viewers wish for

the American Dream. In the program texture, viewers feel a sense of identification with the

contestants as a voting system is also employed. The method of voting is used to heighten

audience identification with the characters in the program and sustain the illusion of patronage.

The concept of patronage and voting for a specific contestant as one’s own is similar to the

Freudian concept of displacement, where psychic energy is cathected (unconsciously infused to

another) though in this case the expressed affect is one of love- a converted form of self love. In

other words, the voting system was in place for the audience not only to participate in a

commercialized and glamorized retelling of a projected life narrative they themselves wish to

live. It is a form of self-love because by voting for one’s bet (the preferred contestant) one

affirms a system of values, habits and preferences that at some subconscious level reflects one’s

own.

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The season and the episodes of the show culminate in the grand finals as the hype and

climax of the entire season comes down to determining the ultimate American Idol. The ratings

skyrocket and more advertising companies vie for the tight spot of primetime. The idea of the

ultimate idol bottoms down to the ultimate marketable and commodified performer/singer, an

apotheosized embodiment of the American Dream with all the struggles hurdled, talents refined

and made to reach near perfection and the object of the nation’s admiration.

The narrative of success, of dream come true is of course a politicized version of the

struggle and success of the proletariat, though in this case the proletariat is transformed into

another bourgeosie. The narrative of the struggle is also a Hegelian dialectic commercialized and

marketed for the middle class aided by the globalizing metanarrative of success and

accomplishment, of finding one’s niche under the sun, of making it big. All of these are of

course the rhetoric of empowerment and a tool for redemptively appropriating the narrative of

the oppressed under the rules of a consumerist hierarchy of psychological needs with the peak as

the seat of grand success. The successful American Idol is now a celebrity, a personality

comparable to the elite of Hollywood. The language of economic and commercial success now

acquired by the new American Idol is a language that never cease to find an ending; it is a story

that is being retold over and over again and lived over and over again by its viewers.

To say that the Filipino audienceship appropriates this similar narrative is of course easier

but to deny its possibility is naïve. From the postcolonial experience and the present crisis for

economic and political stability so needed in the corridors of power, the nature of audience

reception of this textual narrative is dependent on certain variables.

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How does the Filipino audience accommodate and construct meaning out of the thick

narrative of a success story? How are meanings negotiated by viewers? Is American Idol simply

an arm of a capitalistic framework of philosophy?

As mentioned earlier with reference to Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model of

communication, the negotiation of meaning is not as simple as it is stated. The configurations

and reconstructions of the significations of meaning, images and characters in American Idol are

subject to the positional codes adopted by its viewers. To say that the program is simply a veiled

attempt to convert the world to its economic philosophy of mass consumerism, and ultra-

capitalist patronage is misdirected and wrongheaded. It may be probable to say that a Filipino

appropriation of the TV program as a success story maybe one of the many possible readings

rendered by Filipino viewers. The appeal of the content of the program is of course a discourse

not foreign to Filipino sensibilities, as the need to prove oneself and to ascertain one’s career

choices based on performative subject positions may not be entirely superficial or unreasonable.

At a portion of this essay the notion of performative role as a possible meaning

negotiated by watchers of Filipino viewers and as a possible (based on Freudian theory)

extension of one’s own life story, was exploited. This was done so in the hope that the reader

may find the possibility and connection that was implied. With the popularity of American Idol

among teenagers, young professionals, show biz oriented individuals and patrons of Hollywood

entertainment among our midst, its choice as a vehicle of crass commercialism isn’t that suspect

also. On the other hand, American Idol as a popular text is too complex to be simply heaped in a

trash can of theoretical neglect. Filipinos who watch American Idol from whatever socio-

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economic strata, age group, ethnic origin, urban or rural locality, religious persuasion etc. will

find a narrative rich with values that reflect Filipino sensibility : hard-work, discipline,

persistence, collaborative work, refinement of talent and diligence. These are the negotiated

meanings selected and reconfigured by Filipino watchers, surely far from the stereotypical

couch potato of American culture and far off from the glossy eyed dreamer of popular folklore

(Juan Tamad). With the proliferation of local versions of American Idol like Philippine Idol,

Pinoy Pop Superstar and Search for a Star in a Million, the narrative is negotiated in the context

of the hardships of present economy and thus makes viewers not only utilize the escapist

entertainment expounded by Richard Dyer in his essay “Entertainment and Utopia” but also

empower himself with the “illusions” created by the program. The negotiation and re-negotiation

for meaning does not stop as viewer preference and meaning configuration does not stop also.

With the Filipino’s penchant for music and artistic culture, the subject position of the Filipino as

a performer becomes an apparent interpretive role assigned through the text of the program or a

logically deduced interpretation by viewers as informed by present existing conditions. The

project of decolonization in cultural studies lies now at the capacity of the TV viewer to make

independent choices for meaning construction, role definition and subject interpellation. The

understanding of the program American Idol does not end in its American or even European

viewership; it creates the possibility of a viewership informed by the unique interpretive abilities

of the wise television consumer and grasp of the television discourse as a dynamic reading

subject to changing conditions of the contextual matrix of signification and meaning

construction and further enriched by a postcolonial past.

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